Two parents, a physician’s organization, and a “gay-straight” activist group are suing Clovis Unified, charging that the district is not providing high school students with adequate sex education because it relies primarily on a textbook that offers abstinence as the only way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
The lawsuit charges that the Fresno County district is violating California law, which requires schools to teach about abstinence and “medically accurate information on other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”
The plaintiffs say that Clovis Unified is putting teens’ health at risk by teaching students misinformation and denying them critical instruction about condoms and contraception. Two parents, the American Academy of Pediatrics California District IX, and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network brought the lawsuit against the district. The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with pro bono assistance from the law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP.
Clovis Unified denies the charges, saying in a statement that its family life curriculum “complies with California’s content standards while reflecting the expectations of our community.” Spokesperson Kelly Avants acknowledged that she found no mention of condoms in the textbook used by the class, but said supplemental materials cover the topic.
“We emphasize abstinence,” she said, “but it’s not the only thing that is covered.”
Plaintiffs point to a November 2011 report by the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, University of California, San Francisco that found that California’s public schools have greatly improved the quality of sexual health education, but that many districts still fail to provide students with the complete, accurate information that they need.
“We can really save lives with comprehensive sex education,” said Tonya Chaffee, an American Academy of Pediatrics physician, in a statement. “The Central Valley has high rates of STDs and unintended pregnancy. Sexual health education in schools is the only way to reach many teens and should be a place where they can get reliable health information.”
Aubree Smith, a plaintiff, registered nurse, and parent of a 17-year-old girl who is a student in the district, said her daughter and her friends did not receive the same quality of reproductive health education as students in neighboring districts.
“I think we need to give our kids all the tools available to them to protect themselves from STDs and unintended pregnancies,” Smith said. “Comprehensive sex education provides that information.“
Smith said she and other parents first brought the issue to the attention of the Clovis Unified school board about three years ago. Nothing changed until the district received a “demand letter” from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, she said. The district has corrected some medically inaccurate information in its course materials, she said, such as saying if teens aren’t abstinent, they will get STDs that will kill their babies. The district also stopped encouraging teens to sign an abstinence pledge, she said, and corrected the middle school curriculum.
But they still are using a high school textbook that does not conform to California law, Smith said, and have not made all the changes that need to be made. That is why she and the others are suing, she said.
Avants said a district committee that included parents and medical professionals chose the curriculum materials. “The plaintiffs have a different interpretation of the depth and breadth of what must be covered,” she said.
Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director for the ACLU Northern California, said that Clovis Unified is well known for its strong academic program, calling it a “standard-bearer for the Central Valley region.“ But, she said, when it comes to reproductive health, “Clovis Unified is failing its students.”
The lawsuit, which the ACLU says is the first of its kind in California, will likely cause other districts to review their materials to make sure they are complying with the law and what students need, Burlingame said.
“Our position is that teenagers throughout California need accurate information to make decisions on personal health,” she said.